EDITORIAL

Funding flap points to need for reform

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Everyone knows everyone in Rhode Island.

That, of course, is an exaggeration. But the essential point of the maxim is true. In a state as small as ours, the degrees of separation between people and communities are typically far smaller than in other places with greater populations and geographic sprawl.

Evidence of this dynamic emerged dramatically this month as it came to light that the state’s budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was to include $1 million to support a treatment technique developed – and, it seems, solely practiced – by Victor Pedro, a Cranston chiropractor.

Pedro, it turns out, has ties to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Those include political contributions to the speaker and past advocacy for Pedro on the part of one of Mattiello’s top State House aides. It was widely pointed out, too, that Mattiello’s law office and Pedro’s practice sit just a stone’s throw apart on Park Avenue in Cranston.

The financial support for Pedro’s cortical integrative therapy, or CIT, technique – which has been ongoing for several years, and totals nearly $2 million – has come despite skepticism on the part of state and federal health officials and opposition from the governor’s office.

Mattiello, facing immense pressure, had the CIT funding – which essentially allowed for patients to bill the state’s Medicaid program – removed from the fiscal year 2020 budget. But he stood by Pedro and the potential of CIT to help people with learning disabilities, brain injuries and other ailments. He said he believes the issue became “unduly politicized.”

On WPRO host Tara Granahan’s show, the speaker said: “I will continue to support the doctor, because I think he brings a unique and special treatment to a lot of kids and individuals that have nowhere else to go…We’re going to pull it because it has become very controversial. But understand when you do that, somebody somewhere that needs a unique treatment badly may be denied it.”

Mattiello also said he viewed CIT as a potential growth industry in Rhode Island. Testimonials provided on Pedro’s website suggest it has helped some people who found no relief through other treatments, and perhaps – as the speaker suggests – more time and data will demonstrate its potential.

What is clear, and what this episode illustrates starkly, is that our state’s budget process needs to be seriously reconsidered.

The case of Pedro and CIT mirrors the problems seen through the legislative grant program, in which state lawmakers hand out funding – hundreds of thousands of dollars – to community causes and organizations.

The General Assembly’s leadership hands out the lion’s share of the funding, and the practice gives the appearance – rightly or not – of taxpayer money being used, with virtually no accountability, to reward friends and curry favor with key constituencies in legislators’ home districts.

The majority of the groups and causes that receive legislative grants are worthy, it seems. Indeed, we have often within our pages run pictures of check presentations to highlight the awards.

Pedro’s treatment, too, might have some merit, at least for some patients – although health officials and professionals say it remains unproven.

But neither CIT nor the money for support it received any kind of hearing or other scrutiny at the State House. Instead, the funding was tucked away, essentially invisible to public view, part of a larger pool of money totaling in the tens of millions.

Ken Block, a former candidate for governor and vocal fiscal watchdog, noted on Twitter that Gov. Gina Raimondo had removed the $1 million for CIT from her budget plan, only to have it restored in the House of Representatives.

Clearly, there is a missing piece of the puzzle. That begs the question of what other potentially questionable appropriations the state’s budget – which now totals nearly $10 billion – might include.

The legislature’s practice of sprinting through the final stages of the process – hurriedly acting on the budget and, often, other key legislation – does nothing to ease concerns. It’s hard to imagine lawmakers, let alone anyone else, having a full grasp of what is being considered and approved.

We agree with a statement Block made on Twitter: “The way our legislature operates needs to be disrupted. The budget process needs to be opened up and made more transparent. Hundreds of bills should not be passed in a spasm of last-minute law making.”

Block and others have urged the adoption of line-item veto authority for the governor, and we support that proposal as a means of checking the legislature’s power.

But the issues go deeper, and change is needed. Episodes like the flap over funding for the Cranston chiropractor give new life to old, negative perceptions of our state. There is no reason we cannot do better – and shining a brighter light on the way our leaders spend our tax dollars is a vital step forward.

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